This will not be an easy year for Munster, no World Cup year is. With the coach...
At one time Munster was the second highest-selling jersey only behind the All Blacks. Those times have passed and since then Munster has been trying to get back up on that perch. In their way has stood the likes of Saracens, Toulon, Clermont, Racing and of course, near neighbours Leinster, who have equaled and then bettered the men in reds achievements domestically and in Europe. Change has been the order of the day for Munster the last few years and this one looks to be the same, though with an added twist
In both the Pro14 and Europe, Munster failed to get past the semi-final mark. This is a recurring theme for them. To change this, last year Munster added good strength, especially in the form of Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carberry. Carberry, in particular, took to life in Munster in no time, he received terrific receptions from the Thomond Park crowd and has since renewed his contract, much to many fans' relief. Beirne was also solid throughout.
The frustration came though in both semi-finals where Munster limped out at the hands of Saracens and Leinster. The game in the RDS, in particular, was frustrating as it felt the team hadn’t moved on since the very same point the previous year. The style of play seemed to be one-dimensional when facing the top teams in Europe. Since then, change has taken place but off the field.
Gone are both Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery. In comes Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree, two who as players achieved quite a bit for club and country, but as coaches are building solid reputations.
Rowntree has been involved with England and The Lions and will arrive after his work is done with Georgia at the World Cup. The forward pack, which has improved considerably year and year, will be an interesting area.
Larkhams addition was the one rumoured and when announced created a lot of positivity. After involvement with Australia and the ACT Brumbies, Munster will be looking for him to develop the backline (an area that has struggled in recent times at the best sides). There is already a lot of anticipation behind these two.
On the field, Nick McCarthy has been the only player outside the province brought in. Several highly promising academy players (watch out for Gavin Coombes and Craig Casey in particular) have been added. Several players have left, but in comparison to previous years, they aren’t as big as when Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan left for Racing, speaking of the Parisians.
Europe - Saracens & Racing are with us in the same group, need I say anymore. This is why it’s crucial for Munster to do better in the Pro14. As groups go, it’s as bad as we’ve ever had (and we’ve had some horror groups). Home victories are obviously crucial, an away win against the Ospreys is doable, but going to both Racing and Saracens may be too much. The home wins aren’t a given either as I think Saracens are one of those teams who can go to most arenas in Europe and come out of them with points (something they have done).
The big unknown is, of course, the World Cup and how will the players be when they come back from this. All sides at full strength though, if we finished second it would be an achievement, but I can’t see us getting out.
Pro14 - Finish top of our conference. If Munster wants a more favourable draw in Europe then this will be paramount and it is more than achievable after the recent rejig of the conferences. The key will be for them not to drop points away from home. In Thomond and Irish Independent Park (Musgrave Park) in particular, Munster were rock solid and scored big in terms of tries and bonus points. Last year's efforts fell on poor displays away from home in the Cardiff Arms, Parc Y Scarlets and Scotstoun. This is something that has to change.
This will not be an easy year, no World Cup year is. With the coaching changes made and the reshaped Pro14, I think Munster have a good chance of doing well and making it to the final. Europe though is another story altogether.
15. Andrew Conway - In for Haley here as he is both a solid defender and good counter attacker
14. Darren Sweetnam - Hugely promising season for him. Has made his debut for Ireland
13. Chris Farrell - Has been a battering ram since arriving and is one of our biggest attacking threats
12. Rory Scannell - Very solid defensively and has a good boot on him as well
11. Keith Earls - One of Irelands, not just Munsters best players in the last few years. Has gotten better with age
10. Carberry - Solid first season with Munster will look to kick on and orchestra things in attack from behind a solid pack
9. Conor Murray - Last year was injury-plagued but on his day is similar to the French scrum-halves in dictating the game
8. CJ Stander - Fantastic player for both Munster and Ireland, years of physical play may catch up with him though
7. Tommy O’Donnell - Terrific player, highly unfortunate with injuries but on his day is a robust runner
6. O’Mahony - Ireland captain in waiting?
5. Jean Kleyn - Big and abrasive second row with bulk, has seen him called up the Ireland side
4. Tadhg Beirne - An extra back row in terms of ball-handling and ruck work. Often was the focus of other teams efforts last season
3. John Ryan - Much improved at prop and has warranted a call up to the Ireland squad
2. Niall Scannell - Will be a contest between him and Cronin for the Ireland starting berth when Best retires
1. Dave Kilcoyne - Continues to develop his game and is an abrasive ball carrier
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